Learning About Radio does Matter

By Dan Romanchik, KB6NU

I recently received an email from someone who reads my blog that struck a chord with me. He wrote:

“I’ve been a ham for decades, operate all modes (but mostly CW), and do a lot of Parks on the Air (POTA). I also spend a lot of time recruiting people into the ham radio hobby and mentoring new hams. It’s that last focus that prompts this question.

“For a variety of reasons that I can’t put on my finger on, it seems like more and more hams don’t really care about how radios or antennas work, and don’t want to invest much time or effort into learning such things. They just want to turn it on and use it. How it works, and what’s going on inside of the box, aren’t important.

“For example, I know of one guy—a General-class licensee—who decided his top-of-the-line Yaesu HT was ‘defective’ because whenever he pressed the push-to-talk switch on one of the repeater frequencies, the radio transmitted on a different frequency. Ugh. Another guy I know thought that his hamstick wouldn’t tune because the wire coil was installed upside down. As you’d guess, the hamstick tuned and worked just fine.

“Some people say that we should get hung up on this. Get new hams into the hobby and they’ll learn as they go on. Except that doesn’t seem to be happening, at least not consistently. Even very experienced, highly educated hams can be clueless on very simple, fundamental radio concepts.

“So, here’s the question: does any of this matter? I don’t know how my microwave oven works, and I don’t’ need to, and I don’t want to. All I want to do is push a button. So maybe it’s perfectly fine that hams don’t know about radio technology and we should stop pretending that any of this matters. Put ‘em through a ‘ham cram’ and get them on the air. Or maybe amateur radio transceivers are different than microwave ovens and it does matter. I don’t know. I go back and forth on this and don’t really have a clear assessment in my mind.

“Anyway, since this seems like the kind of thing you’ve already thought about, I wonderwhat you make of all this. If you’re sitting around with nothing to do, I’d be curious to know what you think.”

Yes, learning about radio does matter

This struck a chord with me because I teach ‘ham cram’ classes, and I often encounter people who think this way. They just want to push buttons and talk on the radio. They say, “I’m only going to use it when I go off-roading with friends,” or “I’m only going to use it when my CERT team is activated.”

I always ask them what they’re going to do when something goes wrong (and we know that at some point, something is going to wrong). I tell them that without some basic knowledge of how radios and antennas work, they aren’t going to be able to fix problems or work around them, and if they can’t do that, they’re not going to be very effective communicators and their experience is going to be very frustrating. Not only that, I explain that they’ll have a lot more fun with ham radio if they understand how the technology works.

So, the question is how to get these people to be more curious about radio technology and how to encourage them to learn more. Being insulting or negative isn’t the way to do it. I hope, for example, that when the guy complained about his Yaesu HT, that someone patiently explained how repeaters work. Sure, he should have known that already, but belittling him for not knowing this would only do more harm than good.

I don’t think that you can fault people for not knowing things, but you can fault them for not wanting to learn things. There’s a lot to learn in ham radio, and you can’t learn it all before you get a license. In fact, I’d argue that most things you can only learn after you get a license and start doing things.

Having said all that, our challenge is to make ham radio a place where those that want to learn things can thrive. I think that we’re doing better at that. Look at all the YouTube channels where you can learn about just about anything that ham radio has to offer. The ARRL is getting in on this as well, with its “Learning Center.”

I’d say not to worry about those who don’t want to invest the time and effort. They’re not going to be hams for very long. They’re going to get frustrated when they can’t get things to work and drift off to something else. Let’s concentrate those who are curious and able and willing to invest the time and effort and make good hams out of them.


Dan Romanchik, KB6NU, is the author of the KB6NU amateur radio blog (KB6NU.Com), the “No Nonsense” amateur radio license study guides (https://KB6NU.Com/study-guides/), and often appears on the ICQPodcast (https://icqpodcast.com). When he’s not writing about amateur radio, he   tinkers with electronics projects and operates POTA and works CW on the HF bands.